So, you want to be a Kindergarten, Flag Football Coach

“Coach! Coach! Coach!” is something every kindergarten, flag football coach will hear in a huddle, on just about every play. When the coach responds, they are likely to hear classic gems like these, “I have a new shirt,” “I felt a raindrop,” or “I have a loose (or new) tooth.” Then there are the most common questions that follow every play, “When do I get the ball?” and “When do I get to score a touchdown?” The other comments I’ve heard are, “I don’t have a mouthpiece,” and “how come you’re not wearing sunglasses today?” Some of the kindergarten children repeat the shouts of “coach!” so often, while you’re attempting to tell the players involved in the next play how to run it that by the time we get to their question/comment, they forget what they wanted to ask/say. Once we complete that exercise, and get the kids to the line of scrimmage, ready to run the play in the time allotted by the referee, be prepared for them to forget everything you just said. (Even when we keep it as simple as possible, by telling them to hand the ball off and run left or right, they often run the opposite way about 50% of the time.) 

For those interested in prepping themselves for this adventure, try herding small kittens, not cats, kittens into something. I’ve never tried that before, but I have to imagine it is similar. Then, try to get the kittens to perform a very specific task. I know that the average 6-7-year-old brain is superior to the felines, but I’ve found that the attention and retention levels are about the same.

The easiest part of being a FF coach is putting flags on your team’s players throughout the game, as the other team will pull those flags off on every play, and some flags mysteriously fall off on every other play. (I’ve tried to show the kids how to put those flags on themselves, but it takes a level of dexterity for which most kindergarten-age kids are not quite capable yet.) The coach will be responsible for doing this while telling those involved in the next play, what that play is. The coach must do this while answering all of the questions and comments the other 5-7-year-old children can think up in the middle of a huddle. (Even though I provided some of the highlights above, they are but an example of the questions/comments I’ve heard in the past five weeks.) The volunteer, with no discernible experience in this regard, must be able to juggle these three things while trying to adhere to the referee’s unspoken timetable for getting your players to the line of scrimmage to pull next play off in a timely manner.

In this, my fifth game, I flirted with dropping the whole notion of plays, as they only invite more questions and different levels of chaos, but just handing the ball off on every play doesn’t teach kids the fundamentals of the game very well. On the subject of plays, I don’t think it will shock the potential volunteer to learn that if you plan to have a playbook, the goal should be to keep it as simple as possible. I thought adding a simple reverse would fall under this heading, until I witnessed in real time. (Picture a herd of wet cats attempting to run to the source and away from it at the same time.) I also added a pass play, in which the receiver runs a simple curl route. I thought this was a simple enough play, until I saw it play out live. (If the coach is lucky, they’ll have one player who can throw and one player who can catch.) The coach should also prepare for the idea that most players won’t know what they’re supposed to do on any given play, so you’ll have to provide individual instructions to each player before the snap, and you’ll have to tell them where to stand, and you’ll have to repeat it. Again, the coach will have to accomplish this while trying to keep the referee happy by getting your players to the line and pulling off a play in time.

The coach should also prepare to repeat those very specific instructions at least twice, and answer all questions that follow. The most popular question a coach will have to answer in each huddle is, “When do I get to I score a touchdown?” My pat response is, “That team over there is not going to let you score a touchdown. You have to go get it, when it’s your turn.” The reason we must continually express the idea of taking turns is that once they score a touchdown, they want to do it repeatedly, and as many times as we express the idea, most kindergarten-age children don’t fully comprehend the idea of taking turns.

As stated in the opening paragraph, they will introduce questions in each huddle by shouting the word “Coach” an average of two to three times a play, and this can be overwhelming in a five-man huddle. I’ve instructed them that, “We can only have one voice in the huddle,” so many times that some understand, but most do not. I’ve instructed them to keep all comments and questions related to football, but they’re kindergartners. One important note to add here is the patience and understanding a flag football coach must employ. Remind yourself, throughout the game, that they’re kindergarten kids. They can’t remember what we said five seconds ago.

As kindergarten kids begin running toward one another they will inevitably run into one another, and the volunteer coach with no prior experience handling such matters, will have to address such injuries on about every third play. The coach will also have to deal with the emotional aftermath of a child having their flag pulled. To us, this is part of the play. Person A runs down the field, person B pulls their flag, and the play is over. To the kindergarten mind, this is a humiliating condemnation of their athletic ability. They might regard it as an unfair part of the game, or the coach’s fault, and some of them may display their frustrations.

My advice to the kids throughout the season was to run straight down the field. Do not dance, do not juke, and focus your attention down the field. After the first practice and the first game, the kids followed this instruction well. They almost always gained a couple yards as a result, so when they had their flag pulled, I always focused their attention on how many yards they gained. 

Some kids still considered it humiliating, and they displayed their frustrations. When we experienced such a display, we simply moved on and let his parents handle the matter. As a voice of authority, on the field, the inclination might be to correct that child’s behavior in some way, but we have to remember that these are other people’s kids. It may embarrass us to have one of our team members act this way, but we have to respect our boundaries while trying to keep control of the individual players. The best advice I provide the kids who don’t succeed on their play is to have a short-term memory. “Try your hardest on every play, but if you don’t succeed, employ a ‘next play’ mentality.” I developed this mindset after years of playing recreational sports. It worked well for me, but it’s too complex for the disappointed, kindergarten mind to comprehend. 

My advice to anyone who chooses to volunteer for such a role is to enter into it with a plan. Watch some YouTube videos on kindergarten flag football. Some videos there show some very helpful drills a coach can run, in practice. Have a plan, but ditch the playbook. I whittled our game plan down to my handoff left and handoff right. We mix one, maybe two, reverses a game and a pass play. Conduct a practice that is very active and participatory. Don’t let them stand in line idle. If there is some idle time, you might want to have them do jumping jacks or something else active, until their turn arrives. When you provide any instructions, ask them to repeat the things you said. One question I ask is, “How do we catch the ball?” They raise their hands, and I call on one of them. “Two eyes and two hands,” is their response. In my recreational league, we have 20-minute practices before each game, and the option of having a midweek practice. I tried one midweek practice, and it was so chaotic that it was pointless. I learned that kindergarten-aged children have an increased level of focus on game day that applies in the 20-minute practice, because they want to prepare to score a meaningful touchdown in the game, and they want to tackle the other team, but to a kindergarten-aged kid, a one-hour, midweek practice is all about directionless, unfocused fun. The two most important elements of coaching kindergarten, flag football is to try to teach them some things that stick, and let them have some fun. Let them worry about winning and losing, for you need to focus on what you can control. We should also make sure we take turns giving the ball to each kid. Not only is that what they signed up for, but it maintains their focus. I try to compliment each player on their strengths and ignore any weaknesses they might have. This keeps them happy, focused and interested. The most important ingredient is to try to keep it fun for the kids.

After dealing with these kids one hour a day, for six weeks, I now have profound respect for anyone who chooses to have a career dealing with kindergarten children full-time. If, at one time, I considered my son’s teachers unreasonably strict, by instituting a level of structure to try to establish some level of order, I now empathize. I’ve heard kindergarten teachers say things to their assistant teachers, such as, “Could you take care of Johnny today. I can’t deal with Johnny today.” I now have a couple of Johnnies that I only deal with for one hour a week, and if I could have one on-field assistant answer the questions, and tend to, just one of my Johnnies, I probably wouldn’t be writing this piece to release my frustrations.

For all of the frustrations, there are numerous joys. There are the touchdowns that the quicker kids score, and those touchdowns scored by the kids who want it so bad that they’re willing to learn whatever techniques you teach them to score. There are also the tackles, which in this case involves pulling a flag. We had two kids, who weren’t as quick as the others, who learned the flag-pulling techniques from the drills we taught them. They learned them so well that by the end of the season, they had a couple of touchdowns but they had so many tackles that I think they learned a lot throughout the season.